Just How Pioneering Was Wendy Carlos' "Switched-On Bach"?

If you're at all interested in electronic music—whether techno, prog rock, or any genre within a patch cable's length of an oscillator—you've no doubt heard the name Wendy Carlos and that of her breakout 1968 album, Switched-On Bach, a collection of Bach compositions performed entirely on a Moog modular synthesizer.

Wendy Carlos's Switched-On Bach

No less than Bob Moog, the instrument inventor and progenitor of East Coast synthesis, said the record was "the birth of a new genre of music." At the time, it was a massive commercial and artistic success, selling more copies than any other classical recording of its era and bringing synthesizers into the mainstream of pop music. Today, the release is often called historic by all manner of music sites.

These accolades are, of course, well-earned. But a new book argues that they barely scratch the surface of Carlos' accomplishments.

Roshanak Kheshti, the author of the new 33 1/3 book series entrant Wendy Carlos's Switched-On Bach, says Carlos was and remains a "foundational presence" to electronic music—and that the brief public acknowledgements she often garners today fall far short of the full story.

In fact, Kheshti explains, Carlos collaborated closely with Bob Moog to modify and shape the synthesizers she then introduced to the wider world. Her sophisticated sense of sound design not only influenced future synths but the trajectory of whole genres of future artists. And her technical mastery of audio engineering and home-studio recording was a harbinger of the DIY record-making to come.

In her volume's pages and an interview with Reverb, Kheshti discusses just how much listeners and synth fans miss when they hear Switched-On Bach simply as a historical footnote.

Why Switch On Bach?

Recorded throughout 1968 before its October release, Switched-On Bach contains compositions Carlos chose for their melodies and openness to orchestration. It was produced by Carlos and Rachel Elkind—who initially suggested an album's worth of Bach synth songs after Carlos played one for her. It features mainly Carlos' own playing, along with some passages performed by Benjamin Folkman.

While studying at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in the early '60s, Carlos had been taught that serious composers were interested in serialism—atonal, non-repeating passages that were thought then to represent the far reaches of contemporary Western music. As used there and in other halls of academia for such work, synthesizers were instruments of chirps, squelches, blips, and little more. Carlos wanted no part of it.

After meeting Moog in 1964, Carlos became a confidant and instructor. (Her first recording, released prior to Switched-On Bach, was actually a demo record for Moog modules.) She traded her time and skills for modules of her own, and then decided to use Bach's Baroque harmonic structure to bring bright, melodious synthesis to life.

Carlos' first record, a demonstration disc called, Moog 900 Series - Electronic Music Systems.

The source material and the resultant album was about as far from the cold, academic compositions as she could get. To Kheshti, the Moog tones Carlos was able to create for the first track of Switched-On Bach are a preamble to the electronic pop music of the late 20th century. She writes:

"God the Christian father appears wearing Afrika Bambaataa’s shades, reciting the book of Genesis on the far left channel while the world erupts in hyper color fractals unfurling like a Prince guitar solo on the far right. The infamous low end of the Moog described as having the deepest, widest, most robust synthesized bass sounds—is a constant here, as is the brightness for which the instrument is known."

The worlds of instrumentation Carlos was able to conjure are all the more impressive when you know the limitations of the Moog synthesizer at the time—and the extent of Carlos' own contributions to it.

Carlos' Influence on Moog Synths

"Analog synthesizers are shape-shifters notoriously difficult to tame. Whereas some synthesizers include preprogrammed settings and sounds accessible with the touch of a button, the Moog 900’s patch bays, switches, knobs, and dials allow for infinite sonic possibilities that are very difficult to replicate with any exactitude," writes Kheshti.

Carlos' custom-built system, consisting of many 900 series modules, was the result of her close working relationship with Moog. They began building the system in 1966. According to Moog's website, "Carlos worked with Bob Moog throughout the album’s recording process, testing instrument components and making suggestions for improvements that would shape the future of the Moog modular system design and sound" like the commercially available IIIp.

Moog IIIp.

Speaking more than three decades after the great shift she inspired, Carlos said, "The technology also moved on, and the special modules and devices we had to custom build to allow our synth to be an expressive, flexible instrument, are assumed as the norm: everyone has them."

Carlos refers to this expressive quality as the "performance value" of the instrument, Kheshti explains, "something that brings in a musician as a critical element to the instrument design." When Moog was first building his modules, he did so very much as an engineer, and credited Carlos as being one of the primary musicians among many others that pushed him to make it more musical.

On her own website, Carlos offers some remembrances of this time: "Ever modest, Bob always deferred on musical matters to those of us who came from that side of the art/tech equation. We, on the other hand, deferred to Bob on all engineering decisions and designs. From the beginning it was a balanced yin/yang relationship between a maker of musical tools and the artists who used those tools."

The biggest result of their years of collaboration was Moog's touch-sensitive keyboard. Developed alongside Carlos throughout the making of Switched-On Bach, it was the first time a synth keyboard processed velocity information—a stark contrast to the simple on-off keys that electronic organs used at the time, and that would remain the norm for years. Today, of course, velocity-sensitive keys on a synth are a given.

"To get the first one though, I worked rather closely with Bob Moog starting in mid-1967," Carlos said. "The final version was rather mechanical and clunky by modern electronic keyboard standards but it did work and it still does. It had both depth and velocity sensing and these could be used to control the volume and timbre naturally and expressively as one performed."

Moog's first fixed-filter bank, the 907—a collection of attenuators at fixed frequency bands—was also Carlos' suggestion.

Carlos' Approach to Sound Design

Where previous synthesizer works leaned into the new sounds of the instruments, Carlos wanted to bring out the timbres and tonalities of acoustic instruments while going beyond mere mimicry.

In her book, Kheshti shows the exacting nature of Carlos' sound design, and the various misconceptions about synthesis Carlos had to fight constantly. The most persistent was that the synthesizer was automated, or somehow doing most of the work itself.

To begin with the basics, Carlos' expert use of then-new modules to approximate sounds of acoustic instruments was unheard-of. Later synths of the '70s and '80s would include presets for brass and strings, but these were still years off. It was her ear and her understanding of the most basic elements of sound that made it possible.

Carlos succinctly explained her mastery to an awed New Age Voice magazine writer, Carol Wright, in 1999:

Carlos: The Moog wasn't all that elaborate. There were a couple of oscillators, and you adjusted them to track the octaves. You would pick a wave shape from the four available: sine, triangle, pulse wave, and sawtooth. There was a white noise source, and a filter to reduce the high end of the wave, to make it sound more mellow, to add resonance, or take out the bottom. Then there were envelopers that came from Ussachevsky's ideas: attack time, decay, sustain, and release. Set the thing to ramp up at some rate: slow for an organ or fast for a plucked string. Make it decay immediately for a harpsichord, or sustain for a piano. Have the final release time based on the need, short and dry, or longer for the vibrating body of a cello or drum. Easy.

NAV: Right. Piece-a-cake.

Through her sound design, Carlos "socialize[d] the Moog," Kheshti writes.

"Much like mother’s role in the traditional nuclear family—as the nurturing translator of father’s rules—Carlos had a unique ability to translate the arcane and technical mechanics of the Moog 900 to sound colors that were legible to audiences," Kheshti writes. "The violin, the trumpet, the human voice—it wasn’t just that Carlos’s perfectly tuned ear could mimic acoustic sounds, but that she understood the social order of things and 'what is audibly important,' as she put it."

However, while Carlos was enamored by the challenge of recreating acoustic sounds, she understood that synthesis was a new medium. She combatted critics' notions that all she was doing was mimicking an orchestra.

"Carlos understood herself to be like a painter," Kheshti tells Reverb, one who knows that even though they're painting a still life, they are imparting their own perspective and artistry on the subject matter. Kheshti unearthed a vintage Whole Earth Catalog quote from Carlos that further illustrates the point:

"Many people suggest to me that I constantly 'limit myself to imitating real instruments.' Bull shit. The easiest to obtain sounds (three or four patch cords on the Moog, for ex.) are all those dreary 'new' sounds. I’ve rarely tried to actually 'imitate' traditional musical instruments—I’ve always used them as a point of departure and then veered off into subtly different areas. ... 'Gee, that Picasso paints weird "flowers," don’t he?!'"

The Earliest Synth Home Studio

When listening to Switched-On Bach today, it's easy to overlook the incredible amount of time that must have gone into recording it. It's a fully orchestrated, polyphonic album made from a monophonic instrument—recorded measure-by-measure, a few notes at a time, and overdubbed to symphonic heights.

More astonishing is the fact that the painstaking process was not conducted at the Columbia-Princeton sound lab or in one of New York City's professional recording studios but in Carlos' own apartment, on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

"Carlos really began as an engineer. While she was getting her master's at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, she was engineering records on the side, and so she was already a professional audio engineer before she started this project and started to design [her home] studio," Kheshti says. "This really gave her the know-how to correct for some of the acoustic problems that come with electronic music. And this was a knowledge that very few people had in the mid-'60s."

Wendy Carlos interviewed in her home studio by the BBC in 1989.

Switched-On Bach was not the first hit record made in a home studio. The Tornados' "Telstar" was recorded in producer Joe Meek's London flat, and Les Paul's many hits were multi-tracked in his Los Angeles garage. But Carlos' living-room setup was the first to include a modular synth and account for all its attendant oddities.

Much as she had done with the Moog, Carlos customized her recording equipment too—giving her and Elkind eight-track recording capabilities at a time when even Abbey Road was still using four-track recorders.

Her equipment list in 1968, according to Carlos' website, included an Ampex eight-track recorder that "had just been assembled from an assortment of used parts and home-built additions ... a small Lafayette tube amp kit for monitoring ... [and] a homemade pullout mixing board." The mixing board would roll out below her two custom touch-sensitive keyboards.

Kheshti says she didn't have access to any formal recording logs, if they even exist, but that it's clear that the amount of recording, overdubbing, mixing down, and what Carlos simply called "orchestration" was a meticulous effort.

"The home studio became necessary in order to commit every waking hour to problem-solving around that," Kheshti says. "In some ways, this record was like a startup. Because, basically, they lived together, they lived with this record, they lived in the studio... it appears that they did nothing but work on this record. And I think it's audible—it's evident—that every waking hour for several years was spent developing the technique necessary to work with this limited recording media."

Carlos would continue to add to her studio, which later moved with her to other homes, for years—using it for most of her future work like the scores for The Clockwork Orange and The Shining.

"The ubiquity of the home studio today, I think, is a little bit surprising, because it was certainly not ubiquitous at the time when she established hers. One of the claims that I'm making in the book is that she is partly, I think, to be credited for the establishment of the home studio as a phenomenon, that now we almost see as the dominant studio model," Kheshti says.

There were plenty of people recording at home before this, of course. "But the quality of the recording is incomparable. I think her ability to correct for signal noise and various kinds of bleeding—there's no comparison with any other home recording."


Read more about Wendy Carlos' pioneering work in Kheshti's Wendy Carlos's Switched-On Bach.

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